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Old School Love Recognizes the University of North Carolina’s Painful Past

The inconic Old Well appears on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

I make no secret of the fact that I love my alma mater, the University of North Carolina, or UNC. Lately, amid a plethora of negative news, it hasn’t been easy to love.

Over the past three years, the Chapel Hill campus has been rocked by a series of scandals stemming from revelations that students took fake classes in the African American studies program, which has led to an NCAA investigation into the schools once-highly regarded athletic program. That scandal continues to hang over the Carolina blue skies, casting a shade that even the revered basketball team’s run to the Sweet 16 failed to evade.

In February, beloved former basketball coach Dean Smith died, sending hoops-loving fans into mourning. He had suffered through health issues that robbed him of his memory. He was 83 years old.

And as the school community publicly grieved Smith’s death, the campus was rocked anew when three area students—two with direct ties to UNC—were shot to death in a condominium complex near the campus. Police identified the three students as Deah Barakat, age 23, who was a second-year dental student at UNC; his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, age 21, who was preparing to enter the dental school; and Abu-Salha’s 19-year-old sister, Razan, a student at North Carolina State University in nearby Raleigh. Craig Stephen Hicks is accused of shooting the three students, supposedly over a parking space dispute in the residential complex. Many in the area and across the nation believe it was a hate crime and are calling for the death penalty if Hicks is convicted.

The bad news continued as the university’s board of governors voted last month to shut down three university-based centers that studied poverty, the environment, and voting issues amid widespread accusations that the closings were political moves by the Republican-led board to silence critics.

That’s a lot bad juju.

As a UNC alumnus, I was invited back to campus last week to offer an opinion on yet another controversial issue that roiled the campus. Responding to the demands of a multiracial coalition of students, the board of trustees held a hearing during its spring meeting to consider what to do about Saunders Hall, which was named in 1922 in honor of a fellow alumnus, William L. Saunders, who served as a Confederate colonel in the Civil War and was a noted state political leader. And, oh yeah, he was a leading figure in the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan in the state.

I waded into this messy debate out of a sense of caring concern about the university.  As I told the trustees, love isn’t always easy to embrace. The bitter realities and inconvenient truths about the objects of affection can lead us to ignore things that make us uncomfortable. For that reason, I strongly urged the board to leave the Klansman’s name on the classrooms with prominent explanations and historical contextualization as a history lesson for anyone who walks on the campus quad. (Watch a video of the trustees’ meeting and my comments here or read a transcript of it here.)

Indeed, I am convinced that scraping Saunders’ name from the facade of the building would represent a cowardly step toward erasure of the university’s shared history. As unsettling and painful as that history might be, UNC owes it to future generations to understand why that building bears its name. Saunders Hall stands as a reminder of what was once valued on the campus. If viewed in the context of evolving attitudes on race and citizenship, on place and belonging, the history embodied by Saunders Hall stands less as an honor to a reputed Klansman and more as a marker of what we have overcome.

As a student at UNC in the 1970s, that is how I viewed Saunders Hall and other buildings on campus that were named for slaveholders or white supremacists. When I entered Carolina in 1974, I was well aware that my presence on campus was neither foreseen by the school’s founders nor possible for my ancestors. I knew enough of my personal and state history to realize that black youth of my parents’ generation, if they were to attend college in North Carolina, were compelled to enroll in segregated, separate-and-very-unequal institutions. This is, relatively speaking, recent history.

I have read that the mantra of the student movement to change the building’s name is “#KickOutTheKKK.” Some students have told me that it offends them to walk past monuments such as Silent Sam, a memorial to the 321 alumni who died in the Civil War and the students who fought for the Confederacy. I know how they feel, and I remember having similar discussions with my black friends on campus nearly 40 years ago. Yet the buildings on the campus spoke to me, affirming that my place was to be defiant among them and to excel for those who had the ability but were denied my opportunity.

Context is key. Left alone to stand without meaning and understanding, Saunders Hall makes a lie of the past and mocks current and future generations of Carolina students. I do not favor allowing the building to stand as it presently does. Rather, there are lessons to be taught in and about Saunders Hall.

I learned from practicing journalism—what some call a “rough draft of history”—that knowledge provides a baseline for sound public policy and civic decision making. My work today is an extension of that as I study the impact of race on public policy. Over the course of my career as a journalist and policy analyst, I’ve come to realize that so many of the mistakes made by politicians and community leaders rest largely upon their ignorance of what came before them.

Sometimes, I despair because there seems a vast effort to sanitize American history, to remove the rough parts and gloss over the low points because, well, I suspect it makes us feel better about a history that we seem powerless to change. We shouldn’t try to recast the past to favor the present, instead we should fashion new history that stands alongside, triumphantly, with the misdeeds and errors of the past.

Retaining Saunders’ name on that building falls in line with such thinking. The university’s charge is to augment knowledge, never subtract from it. History must be taught fully and accurately. Love of my university demands that no one be allowed to hide from or made comfortable by forgetting the realities of our shared history.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.